Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On Finally Paying It Forward

I was working on a post about traditionalism for yesterday, but then I got a call from my rebbetzin asking if I would take a meal over to a couple in the community who just had a baby.

Flashback to three-and-a-half years ago, when my first son was born. I had a very difficult birth with him, including a c-section with complications, and I was having a really hard time in those early weeks. We lived in suburban Philadelphia, where there is a pretty high concentration of religious Jews. We, quite by chance, lived smack-dab in the middle of a religious community and had easy access to kosher food, a kosher deli inside a regular supermarket, a kosher butcher, and quite a few synagogues. We didn’t exactly consider ourselves part of the community, but we were friendly with a few families and had been to a few Shabbat dinners.

Thus, unbeknownst to me at first, a friend of ours organized members of the community to bring us meals for two weeks after our son was born. Every day, someone would knock on the door, and I’d meet a new person or become reacquainted with someone I’d met casually in the past. I’ll tell you, those meals were fantastic. Anything that saves an almost-bedridden new mother and a new dad working hard to take care of the new baby and his wife from having to cook is absolutely wonderful.

I said to myself, when someone else in the community – or a friend of mine - has a baby, if I’m asked to make a meal, I will wholeheartedly agree. I so wanted to pay it forward!

Then we moved to California, and friends 3000 miles away started having babies. It’s not so practical to take a casserole to a friend when they live on the other side of the country (or, in one case, the world) from you. So we sent gifts and corresponded by email, and I fondly remembered how nice it was that people so kindly brought us meals, and how I hoped that when someone local to me had a baby, maybe I would be able to bring her food.

And finally, this week, I got the call. I don’t actually know this family, but apparently they have come to a few community functions such as the Passover seder. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know them. The point is, they are Jews in Oceanside, they are members of our community, and they just celebrated the birth of a son. We as a community celebrate with them, and we as a community rally to help.

Tomorrow morning, I am going to make a casserole, and I am going to drive it over to their house. I am going to take a couple of challot that I baked last week, and I am going to give them disposable casserole dishes and paper plates and plastic forks so that they don’t have to wash any plates or worry about returning anything. And, if she’s up to it, I’ll sit with the new mom and chat with her and hold the baby for her for a minute (oh, what a hardship!), and keep her company for a while, if she wants.

Because, really, that’s what community is all about, isn’t it? It’s about having a built-in support system so that when you have a simchah (a happy occasion), or, G-d forbid, a difficult time, there are people around you who can cook you a meal, come sit with you for a while, or pray for you or with you.

Anyone care to share a positive experience you’ve had as a result of being part of a community?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More On Intermarriage

Let’s talk some more about intermarriage! I truly think it is one of the more divisive and serious problems American Judaism faces.

We’ve looked at the compatibility angle, but that isn’t the only one. Let’s look at it from the point of view of inclusion/exclusion.

There are certain aspects of Judaism for which you must be a Jew to participate. For men, this includes being counted in the minyan (quorum of 10 men required for certain prayers and rituals), being called to the Torah for an honor (aliyah), leading blessings such as Kiddush (blessing over the wine) or leading prayers in general, acting as a witness to a marriage, etc. For women, there are fewer, but they include lighting Shabbat and holiday candles and mikvah (which I’ll probably talk about in another post), and the most important of all: a child is only Jewish if his mother is! (Or if the child converts or is converted after birth.)

The problem this creates is one of inclusion/exclusion. If a Jewish couple shows up to synagogue, both members can immediately participate in any or all of the rituals pertinent to their gender, no questions asked. The husband counts in the minyan, may be called for an honor, etc. The wife will participate in lighting holiday candles, making challah, etc. Even if this couple has all of the other problems you can imagine in a marriage, they are both included when they wish to participate in Jewish ritual.

If an intermarried couple shows up to the synagogue, even if they have no other difficulties in their marriage, even if it’s the happiest marriage on the block, they have a fundamental problem. If the husband is not Jewish but the wife is, he can sit in services all he likes, he can don the kippah and tallit, but he does not count in the minyan, he will not be called up to the Torah, and he cannot lead prayers or blessings. If it is the wife who is not Jewish, she may feel less noticeably excluded, but the couple’s children may find they are treated just slightly differently because they are not obligated to follow the laws that their Jewish counterparts are, such as keeping kosher or observing Shabbat.

There are two possible responses to this inclusion/exclusion scenario, depending on the type of person the non-Jewish spouse is and whether he or she is actually interested in Judaism or being Jewish.

If the non-Jewish spouse is inspired by the teachings of Judaism, she or he may make the decision to convert. (I’m switching to the universal “he,” though feel free to fill in “she” wherever applicable.) In this case, once a Gentile has made clear his intention to convert to Judaism, he must be refused three times. If he still insists, then he must live at least one full cycle of holidays (one full year) as a totally mitzvah-observant Jew. Indeed, if he is married, his whole family must live as observant Jews for a full holiday cycle. This is a real commitment. This isn’t just “converting for the in-laws,” or converting for the sake of the children. This is a Jewish soul coming home.

However, what happens far more often is that the non-Jewish spouse feels excluded, feels the mitzvot would be an unnecessary burden, and has no interest in pursuing conversion once he finds out what’s involved. This is where we arrive at the push-pull problem. The Jewish spouse is pushing for more involvement, while the non-Jewish spouse would just as soon go to the movies on Friday evening and sleep in on Saturdays. What often happens, sadly, is that the Jewish spouse is pulled away.

If it is the wife who is not Jewish, this means there is very little chance that her children will convert. Certainly, if the father is persistent in teaching about Judaism to his children and involves them in synagogue-going and other Jewish ritual, the children may decide that they’d like to convert. We can only hope this is what will happen.

If it is the husband who is not Jewish, he may end up pulling his children (or potential children) from their Jewish roots, though they would not need to convert if they were attracted to their Jewish “half.”

(I’d like to insert a note here that you cannot be “half-Jewish.” You either are Jewish or you are not. If one parent is Jewish and the other is not, then you are Jewish if your mother is, and your are not Jewish if your mother is not. Simple.)

I’m not going to argue the point that in some rare cases, “The One” for a Jew is, in fact, a non-Jew with a Jewish soul, who needs that marriage as the impetus/catalyst/eye-opener/introduction for conversion to Judaism. It does happen. But not very often.

I’m also not going to suggest that all Jewish people are marriage material. Jewish people are still people, after all, and there may be plenty of Jews out there who are not “The One.” Don’t go out and marry someone just because they’re Jewish, any more than you’d marry someone just because they’re a Harvard graduate or finding the cure for cancer.

I have a few more things to say on intermarriage, so stay tuned!

By the way, you can follow me on my Facebook page, Jessica on Judaism.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

On Intermarriage

I hope you didn’t miss me too much during my brief hiatus. Lots of things happening lately, and I couldn't think of a good topic to blog on until now.

But enough excuses. Today we have a touchy subject.

One consequence of assimilation is intermarriage. In this context, intermarriage means when a Jewish person marries a person who is not Jewish. I have seen statistics that suggest that up to 50% of married Jews are married to a non-Jew. That’s… a lot.

As American Jews, we are pulled in two directions. On the one hand, we want to fit in, meet a diverse group of people, have friends of all “types.” We champion the freedom to choose, to meet and marry the person of your choice. And yet, we also work toward the preservation of our culture. We are saddened by the decline in synagogue membership, in religious participation, in Jewish education among our children.

Intermarriage is one of the main problems on both sides of the argument.

We feel we should be able to marry whomever we wish. We feel we shouldn’t exclude someone or distance ourselves from them just because they are of a different race or religion or culture or ethnicity. Thus, if Adam wants to marry Christina, and Christina is a lovely young woman with a good education and a wonderful family, we want to wish Adam the best in his new life. And if Adam’s parents or grandparents or community is against his marrying Christina, and we see how in love they are and how great their life together will be, our instinct is to tell his family and his community to stay the heck out of his way and let him marry the woman he loves and make beautiful babies with her. Intermarrying is both a result and a catalyst of assimilation, and if assimilation is the goal, then let the mazal tovs and the well wishes commence.

On the other hand, if Adam marries Christina, their children won’t be Jewish. There’s a good chance that Adam will not continue practicing Judaism. Christina’s parents might not like it if Adam tries to take their grandchildren to synagogue or wants to host a Passover seder. And Adam might hate it every year on Christmas when they travel to Christina’s family’s house and gather ‘round the tree to open presents. And Adam’s parents, who opposed the union from the start? What will they say when Christina doesn’t want to come for Rosh Hashanah dinner and wants to baptize the children?

It’s not that Adam is doing anything wrong by exposing his children to Jewish rituals. And it’s not that Christina is doing anything wrong by immersing her children in Christian practices. The problem is that Adam isn’t Christian and Christina isn’t Jewish.

I would venture to say that intermarriage really isn’t only a Jewish problem. Plenty of other religious traditions, cultural traditions, and ethnic traditions strongly encourage children to marry within their faith, culture, or ethnicity. It’s not xenophobia or racism. It’s not out of desperation to preserve a waning population. It’s because the most successful marriages are based on similarity of worldview, similarity of background. It’s not true, usually, that opposites attract (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s marriage to Maria Shriver notwithstanding).

When Jews speak out against intermarriage, though, because it is a small population rebelling against a large one, it looks like racism. It looks like those poor Jewish children are being isolated, kept from experiencing another world. But when that poor Jewish child escapes his “cage” and goes off to marry a lovely non-Jewish girl, he might find out, too late, that his parents were right. That, or he might simply be lost to Judaism, another victim of assimilation or attrition.

In my own community, I am familiar with quite a few intermarried couples. The main problem that seems to come up is when the Jewish spouse wants to get more involved with Judaism and the non-Jewish spouse wants nothing to do with Judaism. In many of these cases, the Jewish spouse eventually loses the argument, especially if the non-Jewish spouse doesn’t want their children attending services or Hebrew school. I know a few couples where the non-Jewish spouse becomes equally interested in Judaism and even expresses interest in converting. Those are the lucky few, unfortunately.

(That’s not to say that even if you marry within Judaism, life will be smooth sailing. I know plenty of couples where one spouse wants to be more religious than the other. In those cases, there is quite a lot of tension, where one wants to come to services often and the other doesn’t, where one wants to keep kosher or keep Shabbat and the other doesn’t. And the issue can be just as divisive as when one spouse isn’t Jewish. Or more so! But that’s a topic for another time.)

I want to ensure that my boys (and, G-d willing, one day, girls) marry Jews, love Judaism, and bring up lots of Jewish babies. I want to ensure that Judaism continues on into future generations. How can we do this? By exposing them to Jewish ritual throughout the year, by making Judaism an everyday presence in their lives, by saying the Shema at night, lighting Shabbat candles every week, and putting a mezuzah on their door, by giving them a Jewish education, by teaching them to read Hebrew, by helping them to learn the prayers, by giving them opportunities to make Jewish friends, meet Jewish girls (eventually), and by showing them that Judaism is a privilege and not a burden. If only it were as easy as it sounds.